Padre Jorge Hopes Are High for Pope of the Poor
There are a number of firsts associated with the election of Pope Francis, including that of shunning some of the pomp of the papacy. But the list of expectations that have been placed on his shoulders is even longer. Will he be able to lead the Catholic Church out of crisis?
It's lying on the table in front of him, a thin, faded little book called "De consideratione." It describes the pressures and demands facing a pope while in office. Just prior to heading for the conclave at the Vatican, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz, had quickly pulled it out of his private library, the only book from his collection -- some 120,000 volumes he claims -- to have traveled with him to Rome. He leafed through it often during the conclave, reading passages from it in the evening at the heavily guarded Santa Marta guesthouse, where the 115 cardinal-electors stayed, sealed off from the outside world, without television, mobile phones or Internet.
He sat at the desk in room 121, back straight, pen in hand, trying to focus on the election of a suitable successor to the chair of St. Peter. He kept leafing through the book, written for Pope Eugene III around the year 1150. "It's still valid today," says the elector from Germany.
Lehmann, at 76 "half a year older than the new pope," is obsessed with books, not unlike the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI. Last week, having been back in the real world for a few hours, he seemed rejuvenated by the election. He had just moved to the German Bishops' Conference's Mater Dei house on Gianicolo Hill. Thousands of people were still gathered on St. Peter's Square below. The dining room, with its lace doilies on the tables, was filled with the smell of bratwurst.
Lehmann picks up the book and reads a passage out loud. It addresses the "decay of the church and the vilest abuses that surround the papal throne: excessive ambition, greed, falsification of the truth," the allure inherent in the office, and the "flatterers, supplicants, sycophants, the arrogant and the unruly." He is astonished by how relevant these words still are today, especially when he quotes the author's advice to the pope to "leave the care of his household in the hands of a proven man, not to those who have yet to prove themselves."
He chuckles and says: "How true." Then he turns to one last striking passage from the book, which reads like a prophecy: "The pope must remain the person he was: a humble monk, but one who is now there for everyone." These words are particularly applicable to the new pope, says Lehmann, to Francis, the surprise pontiff from abroad.
Lehmann smiles as he snaps the book shut, pleased with his discovery. He is not among those who now claim they knew all along that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina would emerge from the conclave as the next pope. But he had certainly hoped for something fundamentally new and different. When it comes to his bearing and temperament, the bishop from Mainz is the opposite of Joseph Ratzinger, and he cannot conceal his relief over the change. "Ratzinger's considerable talent," says Lehmann, "was hampered greatly, both in the curia and beyond, by communication difficulties."
Ultimately, it became clear that Benedict was no longer in control of his administration. Lehmann is among many who see Benedict's resignation as a sacrifice -- and as an unexpected opportunity to replace the old, divided, corrupt Vatican administration with a more capable one.
He speaks of a new beginning, and of change and reform. Will he present his new boss with his little book, in which he has discovered so many passages that still apply today? The cardinal demurs, saying that the new pontiff doesn't need advice from another German.
When the Argentine pope stepped onto the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica last Wednesday, gazed down at thousands of umbrellas, hesitantly raised his arm and said nothing at first, it quickly became clear that this new pontiff is presenting himself and his simplicity as a contrast against a church that has become obsessed with its own image. He had only one request for the people on St. Peter's Square: Before blessing them, he asked them to pray for him.
Many of those who had just elected him, and were watching from the adjacent balcony, had never heard anything like it. And it certainly wasn't the only sensation associated with this pope. He is the first non-European pope in 1,272 years. He is the first pope whose predecessor is not buried in a tomb in Rome, but will be living in his garden. He is the first Jesuit pope, a member of an order that was founded as a Catholic movement of restoration. It was seen as the sword of the counter-reformation, a force to combat Enlightenment in Europe, and later as an elite group within Catholicism, one that former Pope John Paul II viewed with great mistrust.
And despite his background as a member of the self-confident Society of Jesus, the newly elected pontiff is the first pope to choose the name Francis, after the founder of the Franciscan order, Francis of Assisi, a friend of the poor and of animals, an itinerant preacher and a stubborn contrarian. Franciscans humbly refer to themselves as the "Brothers Minor," an appellation that a traditional Jesuit would never choose.
Declining the Red Shoes
But the new pope is apparently an exception. "There are quite a few firsts here," Rainer Maria Woelki, the Archbishop of Berlin, marveled the next day.
And the firsts continued. Bergoglio won his first power struggle with the Roman Curia after being pope for less than five minutes. In the "Room of Tears," the changing room for newly elected popes for centuries, the three papal robes, as well as several shirts, collars, cufflinks, and several pairs of the famous red shoes made of the finest calfskin, in sizes 40 to 46, were waiting for the new pontiff. This was where he was to leave his old life behind. But the man from Buenos Aires, a city of immigrants, had his own ideas, which conflicted with those of the Curia's masters of ceremonies.
He declined the fur-lined red stole made by the papal tailor, a symbol of long gone secular power. He was also unwilling to wear the red shoes when stepping out in front of the crowd.
The Argentine pope didn't prevail immediately and the cardinals waiting next door became restless, ultimately sending a servant to knock on the door of the Room of Tears. There was a certain sense of urgency: Tens of thousands of people had been waiting outside in the rain on St. Peter's Square for hours -- waiting to find out who their new pope would be.
After the servant had knocked on the door two or three more times, the new Pope Francis finally emerged in a simple white cassock. He had won the struggle over the dress code, and now he looked determined as he made his way to the loggia. Looking neither left nor right, he strode through the Sistine Chapel until he encountered a cardinal in a wheelchair who had participated in the conclave. The cardinal was the first to receive the new pope's embrace.
He courted his fellow cardinals with emphatic humility. When the chauffeured papal Mercedes with the license plate number SCV 1 appeared, Francis sent it away, boarded the bus carrying the cardinals, and sat down in the second row behind the driver, on the left-hand side of the bus. One of the cardinals took a blurred picture with his mobile phone. At the Santa Marta guesthouse, he didn't sit in the white chair intended for the pontiff, but ate his pasta at the table with the others instead. The papal suite that had been prepared for him remained empty that night. Instead, Francis preferred to stay in the modest room No. 201, which had been assigned to him before the conclave. The next morning, he went in person to the guesthouse to pick up his suitcases, paid the bill with his own money and walked to the Apostolic Palace -- to be the next pope.
Shining Role Model?
Vatican aficionados and newspapers were practically tripping over themselves, calling Francis the austerity pope and a shining role model.
"These are little things that say a lot about a person," says Vienna's Cardinal Christopher Schönborn. "Details that may signify great promise." The new pope reminds him a little of John Paul II and of John XXIII, he says. "He can conjure up beaming faces in ordinary people. Il Papa dei poveri, the pope of the poor." This is no exaggeration, says Schönborn.
Almost the same sentiment is being expressed in his native Argentina. Buenos Aires shows its third-world side in a slum called Villa 31, where children kick a ball around between piles of garbage and drug dealers hang around on street corners. There are often shootings at night and taxi drivers refuse to drive into the slum. The Church of Cristo Obrero is under a highway overpass, where the slum gives way to a no-man's land of shipping companies and warehouses. A simple wooden cross protrudes from the corrugated metal roof. Local residents have erected a mausoleum of red bricks in front of the entrance to the church.
It contains the mortal remains of Padre Carlos Mugica. A priest who worked among the poor, he was murdered by death squads in 1974 and buried in a remote cemetery. It was only in 1999 that the dead priest was brought back to his parish. Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio had Mugica's body exhumed and brought to Villa 31 in a ceremonial procession, with Bergoglio walking behind the coffin. The bishop has been worshiped as a hero since then. "He gave the poor their dignity back," says Padre Guillermo Torre, who has headed the parish for the last 14 years.
Photos of the new pope hang in the church auditorium, next to images of Mother Teresa. He often read Mass there, and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner even visited the church once, though she and Bergoglio are not on good terms. The last time Padre Guillermo spoke with Bergoglio was two months ago. The cardinal was helping him develop a center for the treatment of drug addicts and a soup kitchen for the poor. "He is a man of dialogue," says Torre. "He has no conceits."